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Original Issue

The Case for ... Virginia

LIKE MOST coaches, Tony Bennett employs the sort of bite-sized inspirational messages that made another Tony (Robbins) famous. Virginia's coach discovered a prescient one by casting his gaze beyond what he might have found in his own family (he played and coached under his father, Dick, a college head coach for 30 years), his own conference (the ACC boasts a quartet of Hall of Fame coaches) and even his own sport. Instead Bennett borrowed a motto from Oregon's football program. "'Win the day,' that's their theme," Bennett said of the Ducks back in October. "You stay true to that. You fall in love with it, and the end results take care of themselves."

So far even Oregon couldn't match the Cavaliers' results. While the high-flying Ducks lost only one of their first 14 games en route to a No. 2 ranking and a berth in the college football title game, Bennett's squad has ridden its ball-control offense and stifling defense to a 15--0 start and is similarly ranked No. 2, its loftiest spot in 32 years. Should Virginia continue its run, there's a good chance it will find itself in the same place Oregon did: playing for a national championship.

While much of the conversation in college basketball has centered on whether No. 1 Kentucky can go undefeated, the nation's only other unbeaten team has quietly built a résumé that suggests it is every bit the title contender the Wildcats are. Virginia is the only team in the country to rank in the top six in offensive and defensive efficiency. And while Kentucky struggled to keep its record spotless last week—needing overtime to beat unranked Ole Miss at home 89--86, and two extra periods to escape unranked Texas A&M on the road 70--64—the Cavaliers became the first top 10 team in the last six tries to beat Notre Dame in South Bend, topping the 12th-ranked Fighting Irish 62--56 on Saturday.

To be sure, there remain potholes on Virginia's path to perfection, most notably a three-game stretch starting at the end of the month in which a road trip to No. 15 North Carolina is sandwiched between home games against No. 4 Duke and No. 6 Louisville. But perhaps the biggest reason gives the Cavaliers a better than 60% chance to win each of those games is that its offense is proving almost as potent as its heralded defense. Virginia is averaging more than 70 ppg for the first time in Bennett's six seasons.

In fact, the Cavaliers' 117.8 points per 100 possessions (adjusted) is sixth best in the country, and they are shooting 39.0% from three-point range and 74.5% from the free throw line while turning the ball over fewer than 10 times per game. In contrast to the callow 'Cats, Virginia is experienced—six of the eight players who see the most time are upperclassmen—and balanced. Its leading scorer, junior guard Justin Anderson (left), uses the fourth-most possessions on the team.

As usual, though, the bedrock of the Cavs' success is their suffocating Pack-Line defense, which aims to pressure the ball while the rest of the defenders pack in a 16-foot arc around the basket. Virginia is fourth in overall defensive efficiency and holds opponents to 33.8% shooting, second only to Kentucky. Notre Dame, which was leading the nation in shooting at 54.8%, managed only 33.9% against UVA.

Last year, Virginia won 30 games for the first time since 1982, and the ACC regular-season and tournament titles. It earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament only to fall to Michigan State in the Sweet 16. After that loss, Bennett reiterated another maxim he has used while building his program: "A desire accomplished is sweet to the soul." The Cavaliers' desire now is to accomplish more than last year's team, and perhaps get to a place where there are no more days yet to be won.

The No. 2 Cavaliers, the nation's other unbeaten team, are every bit the title contender that top-ranked Kentucky is.